Comment: Party leaders must commit to keeping religion out of the election

By Richard Heller

Some weeks ago I asked the leaders of all the political parties in Thursday's debate to keep religion out of the general election.

I invited them first to agree with the mild and uncontentious observation that religious politics are a scourge to any nation, and then to make three simple and minimal pledges for their parties, both at national and local level. The first was not to solicit financial or electoral support on religious grounds. The second was not to give any form of special access to policy-making or campaigning to any faith group. The third was to repudiate immediately and publicly any person or organisation who solicits support for it on any religious basis.

None has sent any kind of reply. This may simply reflect the routine discourtesy of large organisations today in dealing with correspondence. Ironically, the only organisation I know with a high standard of replies is the Church of England.

However, there may be a more sinister reason for the silence of the seven lambs. Perhaps none of the leaders have the nerve to give those pledges. Perhaps each one of them is in thrall to organised religion. If so – then why (for heaven's sake)? There is no evidence that voters want to see more religious influence in British politics – quite the opposite.

In a  poll conducted by YouGov and the British Social Attitudes Survey, no fewer than 81% of respondents thought religion was a private matter and should be kept separate from politics (against just six per cent who disagreed), while 71% thought religious leaders should have no influence on government.

Admittedly, that poll was taken in 2012. Perhaps there has been a massive religious revival since then. If so, I have missed it and so have the pollsters.  Faith schools are the most obvious expression of religious power in British politics. No party dares to challenge them and this government actually created a new and easier pathway for faith groups to set up schools.

But faith schools are not popular. In a survey last summer, 58% of respondents wanted to see them lose state funding or be abolished outright. Only 30 per cent had no objections of any kind to state funding for faith schools.

This was followed last autumn by a survey in which 60% of respondents described themselves as not religious at all (compared to eight per cent who said that they were very religious). More than half of all respondents thought that religion did more harm than good: fewer than a quarter believed that it was a force for good. Intriguingly, younger respondents (those least likely to vote) were less hostile to religion than those over 55 (those most likely to vote).

However, this generational divide was reversed in the YouGov/Times poll published in February this year, in which 42% of respondents said they had no religion. Nearly half of those aged under-25 described themselves in that way, compared to one in ten of those over-60. However, among all ages of voters, politicians' ratings actually improved slightly if they admitted that they did not believe in God.

None of this evidence seems to have influenced either the government or the Labour party. The coalition decided to make faith an organ of government by appointing the first-ever minister for faith, Baroness Warsi. Her official job description included the promotion of faith and she had a budget (tiny but specified) for activities by people of faith. She told the House of Lords in 2013 that her specific role "is to ensure that the voice of people of faith is heard [in the formulation and implementation of policy], which has not always been the case".

When she stormed out of the government last year, the faith minister's job was actually upgraded because Eric Pickles, the local government and communities secretary, took it over himself, with assistance from another minister, Lord Ahmad. Among their other (taxpayer-funded) faith-related activities they each put out messages to mark Yom Kippur. Were any Jewish voters grateful to have their holiest day cheered by two government ministers? Or did they perhaps feel that this was patronising and presumptuous?

Labour has a faith envoy, the evangelical Christian former Cabinet minister, Stephen Timms, who is also chairman of the all-party group on faith and society. He goes up and down the country cheering faith-based social projects and promoting more of them. Last December he went to Birmingham to launch a new 'faith covenant' to encourage councils "to recognise the potential of working with faith groups".

It would be churlish not to welcome faith-based initiatives which help poor and disadvantaged people in local communities. But alarm bells should ring when our politicians address themselves specifically to faith groups, solicit them as partners with local or national government, and encourage them to believe that they might have a distinctive role in providing public services and meeting public policy objectives. If you tell faith groups that they are the right people to deliver public policy you are very close to telling them that they have a special right to form public policy.

If we let religion into our political system, in Ernest Bevin's words, we will open up a Pandora's box of Trojan horses. As in the United States, we will give faith groups an opening to impose their minority values on others. We will introduce a new and uncontrollable source of factional discord between faith groups who are inside the political system (and in receipt of public patronage and money) and those who are not. We will create the maximum opportunity for religious extremists of all kinds to denounce moderates as sell-outs and apostates. We will clutter political debates with religious arguments which most people find irrelevant and make it harder to reach consensus.

Although eager to denounce religious extremists (particularly Islamic ones who are targeted by the media) none of our political leaders have been willing to take any minimal step to resist the intrusion of religion itself into British politics. 

Look behind the seven plausible faces on view in Thursday's debate and you will see the collective backbone of a jellybaby.

Richard Heller is an author and journalist and was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey. His latest book is The Importance Of Not Being Earnest, a study of the life and work of the lost literary genius, Luke Upward. 

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